US and NATO officials struggle to decipher status of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine

By Zachary Cohen, Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt, CNN

    (CNN) -- US and NATO officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has not backed off his original demands in talks with Ukraine, and there is a heavy dose of skepticism in Western capitals about how credible Moscow's engagement truly is -- even as the status of those negotiations remains difficult to decipher, according to multiple sources briefed on the situation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently indicated he is willing to consider some concessions to Russia to help bring an end to the violence, including a neutrality policy -- albeit one underpinned by robust security guarantees, raising more questions about the current state of talks and specific elements of any peace deal that may be under consideration.

"I'm ready for negotiations with (Putin). I was ready for the last two years. And I think that without negotiations, we cannot end this war," Zelensky told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an exclusive interview Sunday. But he warned that any failure of negotiation attempts fail could lead to "a third World War."

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have met four times since the start of Russia's invasion.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov weighed in on the possibility of Ukraine agreeing to neutral status during a media event in Moscow on Saturday.

"After our operation in Ukraine ends, and I hope its ends with a signing of a comprehensive agreement on the issues I mentioned -- security issues, Ukraine's neutral status with the guarantees of its security as (Putin), a couple of months ago as I recall, commented at a news conference on our initiative of non-expansion of NATO, he said we understood every country needs guarantees of its security," said Lavrov.

But details on negotiations remain scant with many NATO countries, including the US, remaining on the outside looking in when it comes to the secretive talks, with one European defense official calling negotiations "a bit of a dark avenue right now."

The Biden administration still sees no indication that Putin is willing or ready to deescalate the conflict -- making it difficult for US officials to be optimistic about the current state of negotiations, one source familiar with the situation said.

But at the same time, this source also said that the US is not pressuring Ukraine to accept or reject specific concessions and is not involved in the negotiation process.

The US National Security Council declined to comment.

Russian demands

Some of the terms Ukraine has said it may be willing to consider seem more feasible than others, but at the end of the day, NATO countries are still skeptical of Russia's engagement.

"It is very close hold, and no one really knows what's going on," the European defense official said. "Ukraine's positions haven't changed -- ceasefire, withdrawal of troops and security guarantees."

"Anyone who says they know something about the status of the talks, (they) really don't," the official added.

Putin laid out several issues to achieve a ceasefire with Ukraine in a Thursday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalin.

"The first is Ukraine's neutrality," Kalin said in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published Saturday, adding that would mean Ukraine agreeing to not become a NATO member. "Second, disarmament and mutual security guarantees in the context of the Austrian model. Third, the process that the Russian side refers to as 'de-Nazification.' Fourth, removing obstacles to the widespread use of Russian language in Ukraine. It is understood that some progress has been made in the first four articles of the ongoing negotiations. It is too early to say that there is full agreement or that an agreement is about to be signed."

Kalin said Putin had additional demands that were "the most difficult issues" -- the recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the two so-called republics in Donbas. Kalin said these final two issues "are not acceptable demands for Ukraine and the international community."

"If a point is reached in the first four articles and an agreement is reached, there can be a discussion at the leaders' level regarding the fifth and sixth articles," Kalin said in the interview, adding that if the negotiations take place, "it may be possible to reach an agreement and end the war."

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Sunday declined to set terms on what the US would or would not accept when it came to an agreement between Ukraine and Russia to end the fighting.

"This is for the Ukrainians themselves to decide what is too much for them. It is not our decision on that and we support their efforts. So I can't preview what they will end up coming up in their negotiations with the Russians," she told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."

Asked by Tapper again, if the US would recognize Crimea or Donbas as a part of Russia should that be a part of the agreement, Thomas-Greenfield again declined to answer.

"I can't say that at the moment. We certainly have not recognized the independent Donbas regions just declared as independent. But I can't review how we will respond to a negotiated settlement that the Ukrainians come up with the Russians to save the lives of their own people."

The lack of clarity about the status of negotiations is raising additional questions about what Ukraine is willing to agree to and how Russia's demands would be implemented if they ultimately reach some sort of agreement.

Zelenksky said Saturday there were "compromises" his country could not make in negotiations with Putin.

"Any compromises related to our territorial integrity and our sovereignty and the Ukrainian people have spoken about it, they have not greeted Russian soldiers with a bunch of flowers, they have greeted them with bravery, they have greeted them with weapons in their hands," he told CNN's Zakaria when asked about the Russian demands.

"You cannot just make a president of another country to recognize anything by the use of force," he added.

Many details of Russia's demands, whether Ukraine would accept them and how Ukraine would even implement them remain unclear, a senior NATO official said. That includes what it would mean for Ukraine to adopt a "neutral" status with the West -- a possibility that one congressional source told CNN has caused heartburn for US officials.

"Does that mean they forswear NATO? Does that mean they forswear the (European Union)? Can they not have any other external assistance?" the NATO official said. "My sense is it's going to be a very complex negotiation."

Neutrality policy

A European diplomat told CNN last week that if Ukraine were to adopt a neutrality policy and also demilitarize, it would effectively be a surrender -- calling such a move "Moscow-style neutrality."

The Kremlin has floated the notion that Kyiv could adopt a Swedish or Austrian neutrality policy. However, a Swedish diplomat dismissed the notion of Swedish neutrality, saying the idea that their country is neutral is not true and attempts to try to frame it as such are consistent with longstanding Russian efforts to misrepresent Sweden's national security policy.

"Whenever the term 'Austrian neutrality' comes up, it has to be remembered that this is a model of an armed neutrality. This form of neutrality doesn't mean that a country lies down its arms and hopes that nobody attacks it. It's a neutrality where a country -- at least in theory -- is armed and ready to defend itself against all foreign belligerents," said Martin Weiss, Austria's ambassador to the US.

The NATO official added that it is unclear what kind of agreement Russia and Ukraine might come to about the territory Russia has taken control of since invading on February 24. The official said the "hope" expressed by both Russian and Ukrainian officials in recent days appears to be belied by the fact that "some pretty clear differences remain" between the parties.

"I think we just need to be mindful that the Russians almost certainly will seek to continue to resupply and will probably continue to fight, up until the time that things are agreed," the official said. "Whatever the solution, if there's diplomatic resolution and there's an agreement, it has to be clear and binding. And it has to be monitorable. ... People will be looking to ensure that the Russians end the war conclusively. And there isn't some lingering threat that remains."

While the source familiar with the Biden administration's view of the talks told CNN that some of the terms Ukraine has said it may be willing to consider seem more feasible than others, the source also indicated that the US will be wary of Russia's intentions until Putin shows some signs that he is ready to deescalate.

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